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The Mark Rothko mural vandalism and economic resentment

In Cosmopolis, the recent David Cronenberg movie, an ultra-rich currency trader discusses, from the silent submarine confines of his tubular limousine, his desire to purchase a painting by Mark Rothko, worth millions. But it's not just one painting he wants to buy – he wants the entire Rothko chapel, the Houston landmark decorated with canvases by the abstract expressionist. This chapel is of course open to the public – but the rich man wants it for himself. Outside the limousine, anti-capitalist protestors are burning the streets.

It's no coincidence that Don DeLillo, who wrote the novel Cosmopolis, chose a Rothko as the billionaire's coveted object, and this kind of exchange as fuel for the mob's rage: The late American painter's works are among the most expensive in the world (one sold at auction last May for $86.9-million [U.S.]). They are now symbolic, to many, of the ills of the art world: overinflated prices determined purely by a speculative market; art as investments to be traded only by rich people and kept in private vaults; the estrangement of the artist's original values.

Rothko himself, who saw his luminous forms as spiritual, was unhappy about his role as luxury commodity. He was commissioned to do murals for the new Four Seasons restaurant in New York and broke his contract, refusing to deliver the paintings, after he realized just how exclusive the restaurant was going to be.

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One of those paintings destined for the Four Seasons was sent instead to the Tate Modern in London where, just last week, it was defaced by someone claiming to be an artist himself. Someone daubed, in dripping black paint, the words "Vladimir Umanets, A Potential Piece of Yellowism." The vandal fled before he could be arrested, but he then went public, telling the press his name was indeed Umanets and he was representing a movement in art called Yellowism, and directing us to a website with an incoherent manifesto on it.

The manifesto does not represent an actual movement in art – it's just another piece of defiantly nihilistic art-babble – but the gesture of "signing" someone else's product is part of an established artistic tradition. Marcel Duchamp's most famous "readymade" – a mass-produced urinal signed with a fake name – has been itself the target of many remakers, several of whom have tried to add their names to its list of creators by urinating in it. The most determined of these remakers chipped it with a hammer (in the Pompidou Centre, in 1993). All of these attacks were in the name of art and in the tradition of Duchamp himself.

The most amusing controversy about the vandalizing of a work of art occurred when Damien Hirst displayed a half a sheep preserved in formaldehyde, in a London gallery in 1994. He called it Away from the Flock. An artist named Mark Bridger surreptitiously poured black dye into the tank. He then claimed he had remade the artwork, and he renamed it Black Sheep. Bridger argued he was not vandalizing the work but working on the same "creative wavelength" as Hirst himself. Later, Hirst produced a catalogue of his work with an image of the sheep overlaid with a black screen, a passing reference to the attack on the work. Bridger sued for copyright infringement.

Umanets, the self-proclaimed Rothko defacer, is merely a would-be Erostratus of painting, a guy who can't get famous any other way. His various Web presences point to a loathing of the already successful. He and a couple of associates have held a "show" at a space they called Natalia Vodianova. (Natalia Vodianova the supermodel tweeted that she was bringing legal action against him for unauthorized use of her name.) The show advertised that there was a Damien Hirst on display (there wasn't). So appropriation is really what this guy is all about.

On Web forums about the Rothko attack, the conversation veered quickly away from the unoriginal ideas of the vandal and turned to the artistic value of Rothko himself. The usual my-kid-could-do-that objections are still coming up. A bemusement about the ludicrous financial worth of the paintings lurks beneath a lot of it. This annoyance is bound to be greater in times of financial crisis: An obscene disparity of income is flaunted by art-auction purchases. One can see iconoclasm against valuable abstract art not as an intellectual or effete artistic statement but as simple economic resentment, as the mob screaming outside the currency trader's limousine.

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